The Dane County Fair in Madison, Wisconsin: The Quest for the Blue Ribbon


Photographs by Paula Forbes

EMD's Paula Forbes is in the Midwest doing research for her Up North Cookbook. She's going to report back from the field from time to time, and here's her report on the Dane County Fair in Madison, Wisconsin.

It's summer, which, among other things, means that it's time for rural America's best jams, pies, quilts, steers, piglets, and llamas to make the trek to the closest thing to a big city and duke it out for the almighty ribbon. That's right, it's state and county fair time.

I recently visited the fair of my childhood, the Dane County Fair in Madison, Wisconsin, to find out what has or hasn't changed in the world of competitive canning, and whether I can still hold my cream puff after going on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Answers: not much, and yes! but probably not twice, so don't make me do it again.

First, we ate lunch — we being myself, my eleven year-old cousin and her friend, brought along because I figured eleven year-olds are the only demographic who can handle more than one type of fair food in a single day. The selection of local delicacies was small yet potent, and heavy on the saturated fat. First, we ate the cheese nuggets.


Wisconsinites pride themselves on cheese nuggets, also known as fried cheese curds. The cheese for these was produced in Kiel, Wisconsin. They were delicious dipped in thick German mustard.


Next up: cream puffs. These guys came from a Stoughton, Wisconsin producer. I estimate there was about 3/4 of a pound of cream in each of these.


After the cream puffs, my junior escorts ditched me in favor of rides and left me to my own devices. Which meant sweet corn, but as the pictures turned out blurry, I present you with this cupcake stand-in, and a fine specimen of the junior competitions.


The competition exhibits were awesome; largely 4-H and FFA clubs from the area battling in the ancient arts of compost manufacturing, table setting, cake-decorating, or the all-mighty canned preserves. They also had a produce box category, and I wondered if this were a recent addition due to the growth in popularity of CSAs, or if it was simply a showcase of what each competitor could produce. Either way: check out that cabbage!

I didn't spend as much time in the livestock areas — it was the food I was interest in, after all — but they were as full of big-eyed cows, freaked-out horses, bemused llamas and fat, panting hogs as you might suspect. They were also fairly paved with manure. Authentic!

In the end, the Dane County Fair ended up being pretty much exactly as I remembered from my childhood: full of artery clogging food, nausea-inducing rides, and fierce culinary competition.

Auf wiedersehen from Wisconsin, for now!


Paula Forbes

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One Comment

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  1. Emily

    I love state fairs -- they're this incredibly pure, technicolor cross-section of Americana. This one looks great.

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